An Unexpected Oasis

Tucked among far South Austin’s well-manicured lawns, an oasis of fruit trees, vegetables, herbs and ornamentals flourishes in a 40- by 60-foot backyard that serves as both an outdoor laboratory and labor of love for Venkappa Gani and his wife, Ratna. In 1997, following Venkappa’s 30-year engineering career, the couple retired to a neighborhood undergoing construction of hundreds of new homes. At the time, the yard was slated as a flat canvas for St. Augustine, but the Ganis had other ideas. 

They managed to opt out of sod in favor of soil, and got started planting a border of fruit trees. “I grew up in the garden,” says Venkappa—explaining that growing food was at the core of the school curriculum in the  farming village where he was born in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka. To help the village thrive, all students were given a plot of land to cultivate, which required hauling buckets of water to tend their plants. Every year, as they moved up a grade, they were given a bigger plot. 

Formal education was customarily expected to end at the eighth grade, but as the top student in his class, Venkappa advanced to the local high school—walking three miles to and from school, every day. Graduating at the head of his high school class, he went on to the B.V.B. College of Engineering and Technology, where he again rose to the top his class and graduated with a B.E. in electrical engineering. The next stop for Venkappa was Boulder, Colorado, in 1966, where he earned a M.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Colorado. 

He left Boulder for Poughkeepsie, New York, where he was offered a position with IBM. Then, while on a trip back to India, he married Ratna. Eventually, IBM led the couple to Austin where the seeds that were planted during elementary school took root in a retirement that’s redefining what’s possible on a modest plot of land. Venkappa now serves as a sought-after and award-winning gardening expert.

Entry to the Ganis’ backyard is via a dense canopy of crimson-flowered Rangoon creeper vine, then suddenly, a wildly prolific, Eden-like setting is revealed. Venkappa appears to have defied any number of well-accepted notions of what can thrive amid  Central Texas’ scorching heat, occasional freezes and often subpar soil. Fruit trees—primarily along the edges—include pomegranate, persimmon, papaya, peach, fig, jujube, Texas red grapefruit, Meyer lemon, kumquat, Dorset apple, olive, pineapple guava, Orient pear and banana. In the center of the fertile plot, divided by limestone blocks and brick pathways, are edibles, ornamentals and leafy herbs that are indigenous to just about every corner of the globe and include lamb’s quarters, papyrus, bay laurel, thryallis, Swiss chard, coriander, dandelion, curry plant, tarragon, bitter gourd, hibiscus (for tea), butterfly weed, pequín chili pepper, okra, rosemary, oregano, tomatoes, broccoli, peas and garlic. 

Growing up without running water or electricity, Venkappa takes neither for granted. He was among the first to benefit from the City of Austin’s rebate program for solar energy in 2004, and put his electrical engineering degrees to work to install solar panels on his roof. City rebates also came into play the following year with the installation of two 1,500-gallon tanks for rainwater harvesting. 

As is his tradition, Venkappa never uses chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. A hearty compost heap is the source of an occasional nutrient boost to the soil, and if there’s a secret ingredient, it might be his all-natural Gani Coco Coir product. It’s made by extracting coconut husk fibers from coconut shells and compressing them into lightweight blocks that serve as an extremely water-retentive planting medium. Venkappa sells the blocks at various gardening centers around town.

The backyard garden is a significant source of sustenance to Venkappa and Ratna, who are both lifetime vegetarians. When a crop exceeds what they can consume—which is often—it’s sold through co-op yard-to-market booths at the Sunset Valley SFC Farmers’ Market on Saturday and the HOPE Farmers Market on Sunday, where the couple can often be seen chatting with customers and sharing gardening tips.

Over the years, Venkappa has become a solid fixture in the local-growers circle. He’s a life member of the Travis County Master Gardeners Association, a member of The Garden Club of Austin and a past president of the Austin Organic Gardeners club. He is also the founder of the Organic Farm & Learning Center at Green Haven Ranch in Hutto, Texas—a community-wide education initiative that offers hands-on training and workshops on organic gardening, rainwater collection and solar energy. In 2005, the Texas Master Gardeners Association named him Gardener of the Year. 

Accolades and other projects aside, Venkappa’s home garden continues to be a beloved and comforting personal haven. When asked whether Ratna’s love of the garden is at the same level as that of her husband’s, she says, unequivocally, “I love it more!” And then she offers one of her favorite ways to cook their bounty: “Add whole mustard seeds and whole cumin seeds to hot oil,” she says. “When the seeds start to pop, add onions and vegetables and sauté. Finish with curry powder, salt, lemon and tamarind, to taste.” Yum.

By Lisa Wahlgren • Photography by Andy Sams